Lovers of Jewish humor will mourn closing of Yiddish-infused 'Mad' magazine

'Mad' was famous for attacking sacred cows and poking fun at hypocrites in every sector of society, including politicians and entertainers, with an outsider’s glee and sense of having nothing to lose

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July 4, 2019 17:30
2 minute read.
Lovers of Jewish humor will mourn closing of Yiddish-infused 'Mad' magazine

Festival special guest Sam Viviano has been art director of ‘Mad’ magazine for over 18 years. (photo credit: SAM VIVIANO)

 
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Mad Magazine’s gap-toothed mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, always said, “What? Me Worry?” and now there is really nothing left to trouble him, as the iconoclastic humor magazine announced it is shutting down after nearly 70 years of publication.

The magazine said Wednesday that its next issue would no longer be available on newsstands and would only be sold to subscribers, and that subsequent issues would feature only previously published content.

Aficionados of Jewish humor will particularly miss the publication, which had an outsider’s irreverent point of view that reflected a particularly Jewish kind of humor, which was not surprising in light of the fact that its founder, William M. Gaines ( the family name was originally Ginzberg), and many of its contributors were Jewish. It has influenced generations of Jewish comic artists, comedians and writers, notably Art Spiegelman, the author of the graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus, who called it his “Talmud.”
Harvey Kurtzman, considered by many to be one of the great geniuses of the comics, started the publication with Gaines, and wrote many of the magazine’s original stories, until he and Gaines had a falling out in 1956.

Will Elder, one of Mad’s first and most iconic comic artists, was born in the Bronx as Wolf Eisenberg, and was called “Meshugganah Villy” by his family.

Other key Jewish contributors to Mad included Al Feldstein, Mort Drucker, Dave Berg, Larry Siegel and Lou Silverstone.
Al Jaffee, another one of Mad’s Jewish staff, a cartoonist known for his “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” series which has delighted generations, spoke in an interview with Leah Garrett of The Forward about why there was so much Jewish humor in the magazine. Jaffee, who was fluent in Yiddish, said that for many Mad contributors, Yiddish was “an inherently funny language that their parents would use to tell secrets and swear.”

Jaffee said that the iconic Mad word “furshlugginer” came from the Yiddish “shlogan” (to hit). Other Yiddish and Yiddish-inspired words in Mad included “borscht,” “ganef,” “bveebleftzer,” “farshimmelt,” “potrzebie” and “halavah.”

The word “Cowznofski” was another running joke often used in the early years of Mad, generally as a character’s last name, often with the first name “Melvin.”

In a 2012 issue, it ran the article, “What if Batman were Jewish?” with a Torah-like scroll unfurled to reveal answers such as, “His new catch phrase would be, ‘Why is this Dark Knight different from all other Dark Knights?’”

While much of the Jewish humor in Mad made Jews and gentiles alike laugh, some took it quite seriously, including Nathan Abrams, who published an article entitled, “A Secular Talmud: The Jewish Sensibility of Mad Magazine,” in the Penn State University journal, Studies in American Humor in 2014.

Mad was famous for attacking sacred cows and poking fun at hypocrites in every sector of society, including politicians and entertainers, with an outsider’s glee and sense of having nothing to lose, key components of Jewish humor. It was able to do that in part because of a critical editorial decision Gaines made early on not to sell advertising in the magazine, which meant that it was beholden to no one and free to offend everyone.

That included presidents, of course, and in an issue from 2017, it pictured its mascot Alfred E. Neuman as President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, in an Oval Office portrait behind the president and next to Ivanka Trump, with the headline, “Take Your Kids to Work Every Day.”

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